Criminals in Mexico have increasingly sought to use hotels for staging virtual kidnap attempts. Erin Drake considers the methods and tactics used by kidnappers to carry out a fake abduction.
Virtual kidnappings have become a frequently practiced form of kidnapping in Mexico. In such kidnappings, criminals trick family members into believing that a loved one has been abducted. Meanwhile, the perpetrators intimidate the kidnap ‘victim’ into remaining isolated in a particular location, forcing them to refrain from contact with the outside world. The kidnappers subsequently extort ransoms for their victim’s release, despite the victim being in no real danger. In Mexico, criminals often stage such virtual kidnap attempts at hotels. Potential victims can be easily identified through social media profiles and geotagging once they have checked in to a hotel. The perpetrators can then use the victim’s social media profile to identify relatives to target for the ransom demand.
Virtual kidnappings will remain a lucrative and low-risk endeavour for criminals, particularly in comparison to traditional kidnap for ransom. As Mexico begins to reopen various tourist resorts and hotels, this will create more opportunities for criminals to target travellers in virtual kidnap attempts.
14 NURSES VIRTUALLY KIDNAPPED IN MEXICO CITY
In a prominent case in May 2020, 14 nurses who had travelled from Chiapas State to Mexico City to assist with the Covid-19 outbreak were victims of a two-day virtual kidnapping attempt. Criminals targeted the nurses in the state-provided Ambos Mundos hotel in the Tacubaya neighbourhood. The perpetrators claimed that they had access to the building’s security cameras, and threatened to abduct the nurses if they left the facilities. A group of six nurses were forced to move to the nearby Hotel Bonn in the Escandón neighbourhood. The perpetrators subsequently contacted their families and demanded unspecified ransom payments. Authorities rescued the victims after one extortion attempt was reported.
The perpetrators had identified themselves as members of two prominent gangs: the Unión Tepito, a Mexico City-based kidnap and extortion group, and the Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación, a powerful organized criminal cartel known for its violent activities. The extortion calls were eventually traced to Altamira Prison in Tamaulipas State. Criminals have often identified themselves as members of criminal groups to enhance the credibility of their threats. However, prison-based gang members are also known to make such calls on behalf of the cartel.
VIRTUAL KIDNAP PROCESS
VIRTUAL KIDNAP TACTICS: ESTABLISHING A CREDIBLE THREAT
Perpetrators often seek to force the victim’s compliance by convincing the victim that they are being monitored through the hotel’s security cameras. In a number of cases, the perpetrators allege that they have stationed multiple gunmen outside the victim’s hotel, threatening to harm them if they attempt to leave. They also sometimes request that the victim send a photo or make a video call to the perpetrator for ‘evidence’ that they have been kidnapped, or to provide fake proof of life. In other cases, the kidnappers pretend to be security personnel and convince the victim that there is a threat inside or outside of the hotel, and that they need to relocate or shelter in place for their own safety. In such cases, the perpetrator can use the opportunity to obtain information and phone numbers of the victim’s relatives.
While some victims are forced to stay in their hotel rooms, perpetrators will occasionally request that victims move to an entirely different hotel, to prevent family members from contacting them. In February 2020, a prominent Mexican boxer and her coach were virtually kidnapped from their luxury hotel in Boca del Río, and forced to go to another nearby hotel. The kidnappers then contacted their families to demand MEX 300,000 (USD 13,200) per victim. The ransom was partially paid before security personnel were alerted. They used the geolocation features on the victims’ phones to find and rescue them.
Perpetrators have begun to target US tourists staying at hotels along the US border. The perpetrators coerce the victim into travelling to hotel across the Mexican border. On arrival, the victim sends the kidnapper a screenshot or video call, which the perpetrators send to the victim’s family in the US to convince them that their loved one has been kidnapped. The family is then required to pay a ransom for their ‘release.’ Such cases are infrequent, although they will likely increase as US nationals and their families are high-value targets due to their perceived wealth.
Reported cases also indicate that hotel staff are sometimes involved in the kidnap scheme. In January 2020, a hotel manager and receptionist at the Hotel Plaza Revolución in Mexico City were arrested for their alleged involvement in virtual kidnappings staged by Unión Tepito. They are suspected of providing the gang with hotel rooms in which to keep victims. Hotel staff are also used to inform perpetrators of guest registries and the potential target’s movements and schedule.
AVOIDING VIRTUAL KIDNAPPINGS